Friday, 6 March 2015
Penang hawker food update 2015
Last year on the third day of Chinese New Year (2 February 2014), I was alerted - pleasantly alerted - to a news story that had appeared online in the British newspaper, The Independent. Many people would know what I'm referring to. This was a news story that recommended my hometown, Penang, as the Number One place to visit in 2014 for local street food. Although 2014 had come and gone, Penang still remains as THE place to visit in order to savour the best street food around. Indeed, my home State is the food capital of Malaysia, no denying it.
Penang's famed hawker food. (An update was done two years ago but with this recognition from The Independent, I must always try and bring my own recommendations to the fore.) Now, I know that my preferences are still far from definitive but in my opinion, they are still comprehensive enough.
At that time in 2007, the article was simply an update of an older webpage on Penang food that I had originally created in 1996 or 1997. In all probably, it could have been the forerunner of all the food blogs in Malaysia or Singapore. Today, there are multitudes of people writing about food. I don't intend to go down that road again.
Nevertheless, I would like to think that I should attempt to update my seven-year-old story every now and then for my own satisfaction. In my own way, in my own style. More so as during that interlude, George Town has become a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. Therefore here goes, call this the SS Quah Penang Food Award 2015, if you like. [Disclaimer: All these are still my own opinion and nobody else's. If you disagree with me, tough titties, I say!]
A quick intro to anyone who is not yet into Penang food: Penang is a paradise for food lovers who come from all over Malaysia, Singapore and overseas. The first thing that people do when they cross the border by land, sea or air, even before they check into a hotel, is to ask: "Penang food, where, ah?"
Ais Kacang. Not many stalls can beat this "anchor tenant" at the new New World Park Hawker Centre. The owners used to operate from the roadside at Swatow Lane for decades until the New World Park was finally rebuilt and they moved in. Along with the relocation, the prices of their ais kacang naturally increased too. But the stall continued to be well patronised, especially by the lunchtime crowd. The ais kacang comes with the usual sweet red kidney beans (large ones!!), attap nuts and sweet corn, all covered with shaved ice and laced with rose syrup, brown sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk. For a bit more indulgence, ask for ice cream and sliced fruits like bananas and papayas. The Ais Kacang stalls in Lorong Selamat also serve similar irresistible versions. Over on the mainland, I find that the Ais Kacang stall at the nightly Sentosa Food Court (there are several but you should head for the one with the red stall lights) in Bukit Mertajam, corner of Kulim Road and Jalan Sentosa, serves a version with the smoothest and finest shaved ice.
Apong. Originally cooked by Indians in small claypots over charcoal, most apong stalls now use small metal woks over gas fires nowadays. To me, this is not so interesting anymore and the taste is somewhat different. But it's still possible to find apong, the old fashioned way at the coffee shop at the Burmah Road/Moulmein Road junction (same coffee shop selling the Hokkien Mee described below). Available in the mornings until about 9am, after that,habis!
Apong Balik. Quite different from the Indian apong described above. The batter contains more eggs, lots more eggs, thus making the final cooked apong balik soft and fluffy. The most memorable stalls are along Burmah Road, just outside the Union Primary School. The Apong Guan stall is run by Ah Guan while Apong Chooi is run by, well, Ah Chooi. Figures, right? Anyhow, they are brothers who went their own separate ways a very long time ago after some family disagreements. And both decided to establish themselves on this road, hardly 20 metres apart. Apom Guan is definitely more popular but his brother's version is almost indistinguishable. For an alternative version, try the morning stall at the Pulau Tikus Lane-Kuching-Burmah Road junction.
Bak Moy. It's more than moy (or broth) that the hawkers sell. Normally, I'd go for the mee suah. But no matter whether its moy or mee suah, the hawkers that used to sell at a roadside stall in Jalan Kampung Malabar, off Penang Road is quite well known. It's worth waiting 30 or 40 minutes just to enjoy a bowl. It is to be noted that the stall has now shifted its operations to a shop further down the road, called Hon Kei. Business continues to be good but personally, I feel its standard has dropped a bit. Another bak moy stall, but one that is lesser known, is located in a coffee shop along New Lane. (A word of warning: don't get confused with the roadside stall that sells chee cheong chok. This bak moy stall in inside a coffee shop.)
Banana Leaf Rice [entry added on 17 July 2014]. This is of ethnic South Indian origin and comes served on a banana leaf with a standard serving of two or three types of vegetable dishes and papadom. You can usually choose between fish, chicken and mutton as a main dish or if you prefer, go vegetarian all the way! One of the oldest banana leaf rice restaurants is the Veloo Villas Restaurant in Penang Street. It's now my choice for traditional Banana Leaf Rice whenever I'm in the financial district of George Town, ever since the owner of the Shusi Restaurant, which I had been a regular customer for at least 20 years, decided to call it a day. Shusi is still operating but under a completely new management. Nearby is the Sri Ananda Bahwan Restaurant and the food's cooked by real Indian nationals. So, it is about the closest you'll ever get to authentic Indian food cooked by authentic Indians. However, if I'm around Glugor at lunch time, I would head to the Passions of Kerala in Minden Heights. The Passions of Kerala also have a branch at the New World Park in Burmah Road/Hutton Lane but being located there, the prices are more expensive and you'd generally be expected to pay at least RM4 more per person.
Char Koay Kak [entry added on 17 July 2014]. For one of the best plates of this dish, you must go to MacAlister Lane. You can't miss this stall. You'll see it immediately on the left side of the road as you turn into it (it's a one-way street). Also, the ones at the Jelutong market are quite alright. For alternatives, you can try the stall at the junction of Burmah Road-Tavoy Road but I tell you, it's not that great. In the mornings, the stall at the SuperTanker food court in Taman Lip Sin. In the evenings, I have been surprised pleasantly by the palatable quality at the Taman Pekaka coffee shop, which is fried by an Indian lady! In Bukit Mertajam, the stall at the Sri Sentosa Coffee Shop is run by the rudest and most despicable pair of hawkers that I've ever come across (actually, the wife is the culprit) but their version is actually not too bad.
Char Koay Teow [entry added on 17 July 2014]. Too close to call but my votes for the most expensive char koay teow go to the stalls outside the coffee shop at the MacAlister Road-New Lane junction, the one at Lorong Selamat and one other outside the Kimberley Coffee Shop in Kimberley Street. Yes, you get big delicious prawns but you get a huge bill too. Also, beware of the pieces of fried lard that's mixed into the fried koay teow. They're crunchy and give a distinct taste to the food but it's too oily for people watching their cholesterol. You can also try the roadside char koay teow stall that opens in the afternoon near the Anson Road/Siam Road junction. BTW, do give the Two Sisters stall in MacAlister Road a real miss. Serious! It's an over-hyped stall and they can even cheat you over an egg. Just watch them fry three plates together and use only two eggs. Huh! Over at Chai Leng Park on the mainland, there is this same hardworking hawker that fries at a corner coffee shop opposite the wet market in the mornings and the Great Wellesley food centre (previously Chai Leng Park's only cinema) in the evenings, and I like his style of frying! In Bukit Mertajam, the specialty seems to be char koay teow with duck eggs. There are two stalls to try this BM version: one is at the Kulim Road-Jalan Maju junction and the other is located next to the taxi stand in Jalan Pasar. Both are opened only at night.
Curry mee [entry added on 6 Mar 2013]. When I was young, this dish used to be called curry mai fun but somewhere along the way, it has been shortened to curry mee. No matter, because this savoury soup dish is long a favourite with both Penangites and visitors. The one stall on the island that comes to my mind has long established itself at the coffee shop at the junction of Lorong Seratus Tahun and Nanning Street. It is still drawing in the crowds especially during lunchtime. Parking, however, is a real headache. [Update (28 Apr 2014): I just discovered a nice curry mee stall called Tuai Pui Curry Mee in Kimberly Street. The stall operates from a coffee shop about 50 metres from the Carnarvon Street junction. Wholly recommended.] Over on the mainland, connoisseurs of this dish will often direct you to a shop along Jalan Raja Uda in Butterworth. They used to operate a stall beside the road but as their business grew and development overran the area, they relocated eventually to a shop some distance away. Their curry mee is rather expensive but business is still as roaring as ever in the evenings. As for me, I frequent either the stall at the Yam Huat hawker centre in Jalan Ciku or at the Taman Bukit hawker centre, both in the mornings in Bukit Mertajam. Don't try the other curry stalls in this town; they are all so hopelessly yucky.
Chendol, a dessert to cool down your hot days, made with green pandan-flavoured noodles and large, red kidney beans in coconut milk, brown sugar and shaved ice. There's a very famous stall along Keng Kwee Street, a side road off busy Penang Road. There's another not-so-famous one directly opposite it. If you want better service, try the less famous one. The quality is absolutely the same, so I dunno why people keep going to the other side of the road!
Chicken Rice. This seller used to have a stall tucked within a small coffee shop at Kampung Malabar but has now gone Big Time with his own shop in Cintra Street, called Wen Chang. A very popular place and I do not see any reason to disagree with its popularity. Friends from KL used to come by just to taste a bowl of the rice first, before diving into the chicken. On the mainland, the nightly chicken rice stall at the Kuan Nan coffee shop is one of the best around: the softest chicken meat I've ever tasted and even the breast meat is very tender!
Fried Oysters. Too oily for my liking but if cholesterol washes off you like water washes off a duck, you can try the stall at the Seng Thor coffee shop at the Carnarvon Street-Kimberley Street junction. Its reputation goes back decades as the business was handed down from father to son.
Hokkien Mee. I don't know why Pulau Tikus seems to be one of the better places for a bowl of Hokkien Mee - noodles served with eggs, small prawns, meat slices, bean sprouts, kangkong in a spicy prawn stock and sometimes coming with generous chunks of choice pork meat, pork ribs, pig skin, chicken feet and small intestines - but if you are around this area, do try the stall at the coffee shop at the Burmah Road-Moulmein Road junction. There are two coffee shops, so make sure you go to the right one. It's the one on the right and it is usually sold out by 8.30am. You may also want to try the stall at the Burmah Road-Bangkok Lane junction. But Pulau Tikus is not the only place on the island to try Hokkien Mee. Opposite the entrance into the Kuantan Road market is a Hokkien Mee stall that has been around for decades. I know it has been around since the 1960s (the original hawker was my neighbour) and the business has now passed down from the father to his son. The stall also sells Loh Mee where instead of the prawn soup, you get a thick brown gooey gravy made from tapioca starch and egg. Best taken with their chopped garlic in vinegar for a special tangy experience. In the evenings, head to the centre of Presgrave Street and search for the Hokkien Mee stall that's set up in one of the houses. On the mainland Penang, the place to go is again the Sri Sentosa Coffee Shop at Lorong Maju Jaya 1 in Bukit Mertajam. Go try the Hokkien Mee with their extras.
Koay Chap. There are many Koay Chap hawkers in Penang but the only hawker worth mentioning sells nightly from a stall in the middle of Kimberley Street. Just look out for the stall operators. You can't miss them. All of them are quite plump and round, no doubt a living testament to the quality of their own food. On the mainland, the stall at the Fresh Food Court in Nangka Road, off Song Ban Kheng Road in Bukit Mertajam, is worth a visit.
Koay Teow Th'ng. One of the better ones I've taken is at the Chai Leng Park market. Stall No. 14. It's served with slices of pig entrails, meat balls and minced meat. At night, I've been frequenting a stall along Kimberley Street quite often. Location is that short stretch of road between the Kimberley Street-Rope Walk and Kimberley Street-Cintra Street junctions. You can order pig intestines and chicken feet as side dishes.
Mee Goreng and Mee Rebus. The stall at the coffee shop at the Burmah Road-Bangkok Lane junction serves good Indian mee goreng and mee rebus. There's also one at the Mamak food court at Gurney Drive, claimed to be from Edgecumbe Road originally. For the more adventurous, try the Mee Kuah Ketam along the Kulim Road in Bukit Mertajam on the mainland. It's just before the junction to the Bukit Mertajam Country Club. This place is packed in the afternoons, except Fridays when it's closed!
Nasi Kandar. Unfortunately, nasi kandar is too commercialised today and many of the old-style Indian Muslim sellers are no longer around in the land of its origin. I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the stuff they cook. Nevertheless, among the most well-known is a place called Line Clear, in a lane off Penang Road, although its operation is now clouded by controversy over family disputes. One of the quaintest characters there is one of their elderly workers who can speak to you in Hokkien or Cantonese, depending on your inclination. But I can tell you that if you have wheels, go to Jelutong on the outskirts of the city and zoom in to the Deen Restaurant along the main road. The nasi kandar there is as original as they come. By the way, I wouldn't patronise the shop known as the Original Penang Kayu Nasi Kandar. On principal, I would avoid that place because I feel their prices are too high.
Penang Laksa. People say the stall in Ayer Itam is the best but don't you ever believe it. It's one of those over-hyped hawker stuff. The soup smells heavenly but tastes quite bland. For me, I would prefer the stall along Lorong Selamat. It's garnished well and the Lemak variety is the best I've ever tasted in the city. Again if you have wheels, go to the new food court in Balik Pulau and search around for Stall No. 26. You won't be disappointed. And while you are still there, you can also go into Balik Pulau town and try the other laksa stalls there.
Po Piah. The best on the island so far is at the Padang Brown food centre. If you are on the mainland, do go the stall that's inside the one-storey coffee shop at the junction of Jalan Bunga Raya and Jalan Pasar in Bukit Mertajam. It's only available from 3pm until everything runs out! Others? I'm not very impressed but these two stalls makes me go crazy thinking about the po piah!
Rojak. Never had a strong liking for rojak but I'm quite partial towards this stall in Bukit Mertajam that's curiously called Rojak Orang Hitam Putih. Don't know why it's called that way, but the stall's located within the same coffee shop where you can find the Po Piah that I've described above. P.S. While you are there waiting for the food, order the local coffee. Now, that's my type of coffee: thick and delicious and guaranteed to keep you abuzz better than any expresso!
Wanthan Mee, or Tok Tok Mee from the sound of sellers knocking bamboo sticks together to draw attention to their ware. What used to be my favourite stall on the island is located at the first coffee shop you see on the right-hand side as you turn into China Street from Jalan Kapitan Kling mosque. It's available from 7am daily, except Sundays. On the mainland, one of the stalls at the Seberang Jaya food centre beside the Seberang Jaya wet market is worth a try. Especially, try their curry wanthan mee for a refreshing difference! Another wanthan mee stall of note on the mainland is in the coffee shop at the Jalan Rozhan-Jalan Impian junction almost diagonally across the road from the TESCO Bukit Mertajam outlet.
Yong Tau Foo. The only authentic Penang yong tau foo stall is located at the Padang Brown at the Anson Road-Perak junction. Others are poor imitations and there's really no competition for this stall. Try it for a memorable lunch or tea.